‘A different vibe’: Amid upheaval and controversy, Raheem Morris looks to bring a new culture to Atlanta

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — There’s juice around this Atlanta Falcons team, a vibe that hasn’t hummed like this since the prime Julio Jones-Matt Ryan era, maybe not even since the Michael Vick days. There’s talent in the building, proven talent and young talent alike that has the on-paper ability to do some real damage in a still-weak NFC South. The roster alone has enough potential to put the Falcons on the must-watch list heading into the 2024 season.

Then there’s the let’s-check-out-this-train-wreck element. After Atlanta signed Kirk Cousins to a $180 million deal, then turned around and spent the No. 8 pick on Michael Penix Jr., there’s plenty of rubbernecker interest, too.

Add into this mix a motivated new head coach with experience on Super Bowl-winning staffs, and you’ve got a team reshaping itself on the fly. Granted, changing the culture of a team in the best of circumstances is like turning a cruise ship. But changing the culture of an entire team, after remaking the entire quarterback room, is a degree of difficulty akin to changing a tire while cruising down the highway.

So Raheem Morris, the new head coach, takes issue with the idea that he’s changing the entire culture of the Falcons. “The culture here is really well put-together from the top down,” Morris said Tuesday after the team's OTA practice. “I’m not changing what we do when it comes to ideas, to innovating, to a people-first mentality. But we are adding to it.”

Morris prowls the entire field during Atlanta’s practices, watching and occasionally shouting as Cousins, Penix and Taylor Heinicke alternate throws to the first-team receivers. He keeps things loose off the field too; in one of his first news conferences, he joked that a reporter who showed up late would be running laps the next time it happened. At least, he seemed to be joking.

“Coaches sometimes try to go pick on somebody and they’re like, ‘Sorry, I’m not picking on you,’” safety Jessie Bates III said. “Rah’s like, ‘I am picking on you. I want you to be better. I expect more of you.’”

FLOWERY BRANCH, GEORGIA - MAY 14:  Quarterback Kirk Cousins #18 looks on as head coach Raheem Morris of the Atlanta Falcons speaks to the offense and defense during OTA offseason workouts at the Atlanta Falcons training facility on May 14, 2024 in Flowery Branch, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kirk Cousins (18) looks on as head coach Raheem Morris speaks to the offense and defense during OTA offseason workouts. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

It’s early yet, but the first days of the Morris era have drawn positive reviews. “What I can see right now is an excitement, a passion,” said linebacker Kaden Elliss, who started all 17 games for Atlanta last season. “I’m so excited to work with these guys. They’re not just amazing football coaches, they’re amazing men. The energy they’re bringing is awesome and it hasn’t dropped off yet.”

“It’s a friendly environment,” linebacker Troy Andersen says. “You’re able to work hard and grind but be supported in every aspect. They do a great job with nutrition, weight room, training room, coaching staff — it’s been awesome so far.”

“I want to bring a different vibe into this room,” Morris said. “I want to bring a different vibe to our team.”

Vibes are fine, vibes keep the team facility humming along. But vibes don’t necessarily translate to wins. When you’re coming off three straight 7-10 seasons, when your playoff drought is longer than anyone besides the Jets and Broncos, when you’ve just made the most controversial first-round draft pick in years, vibes alone aren’t going to cut it. Beyond vibes, Morris is establishing an identity and an approach different from the one Arthur Smith had in place for his three years as head coach.

“I would never say Arthur Smith’s culture was bad,” Morris said. “It was his style, it was his technique, it was the way he wanted to do things. Now, it’s just us changing what we want to do.”

At this stage of the offseason, Atlanta isn’t yet in game mode. The Falcons aren’t even in training camp mode. “We’re not even at the point where you want to say you’re ready for a training camp practice,” Morris said, “but we’re preparing to do that.”

“The thing with Rah that makes him so unique, Rah is hands-on with the offense, hands-on with the defense,” Bates said. “When we have our team meetings, that’s some of the best team meetings I’ve ever been around.”

So for now, it’s all smiles and optimism out at Flowery Branch as the team works its way through the playbook. Once the hitting starts, then the verdicts will start to come in.

“He wants to play fast, play free, be physical,” Andersen said. “Once we put pads on, it’s going to be really fun.”